The economic impact of Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law is beginning to reveal itself in the cities, small towns, and farms of the state.
Latino workers began leaving Alabama more than two months before the law went into effect. Farmers and construction firms, both heavily dependent on immigrant workers, found that earlier departures were just a manageable trickle compared to the waterfall of workers leaving in the two weeks since a judge allowed HB 56 to be enforced.
The farm labor crisis is acute. In the middle of harvest season, thousands of Latino farm workers walked off the job and fled the state. The tomato crop, one of the state’s leading cash generators, is literally rotting on the vine. At some farms, every single worker has quit; at others, a handful remain to try to do work formerly done by crews of 40 to 50 workers. National Public Radio interviewed one farmer who said that workers are not coming forward to fill the jobs immigrants are leaving behind:
“Since this law went in to effect, I’ve had a total 11 people that were Americans come and ask for work,” [Jamie] Boatwright says. “A total of one of those actually came back the next day.”
That one worker picked about four boxes of tomatoes before leaving the field and quitting, Boatwright says. He says picking crops in the fields is a specialized skill that Americans just aren’t accustomed to doing.”
Once the tomato crop is lost, it is lost forever. While one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Clay Scofield, said, “eventually the labor shortage is going to play out,” that reassurance may be small comfort. Farmers, already heavily in debt, risk losing their farms forever if labor isn’t found right away.
The shortage of workers is so disastrous that state officials said they may be forced to resort to sending convicts from local prisons to pick crops.
Food is not the only thing that comes out of Alabama fields. The state is one of the nation’s largest sod and decorative shrub growers. Nearly $3 billion per year is generated by this industry in the state. Norm Moore, of Woerner Development Inc., a sod company, told The Birmingham News that his workers are “intimidated” by the law. He told the News that Latinos feel like outcasts and want to leave the state.
According to The Birmingham News:
Woerner employs about 150 people in Alabama, 50 of whom are Hispanic, Moore said. “We believe that all of our employees are legal, but they have told us, ‘We’re not going to stay in a place we’re not welcome. We’re going somewhere else to work,’” Moore said. “They came here for the same reasons that most of our ancestors came here — for better opportunity. We’ve always accepted people who want to better their lives, and now we’re doing something different.”
Deacue Fields, an agricultural economist, told the News that “agriculture is going to have some pretty big negative shocks” as a result of the law. The “shocks” were made all the worse by politicians who discounted labor problems from HB 56 and made no plans to fill the void left by workers.
Construction is the other industry most immediately impacted by the law. Because of devastating tornados this year in Alabama, the state has experienced an unusual construction boom. But many worksites have virtually closed down in recent days as workers have fled to Florida and Mississippi to escape immigration roundups. One Alabama contractor told a reporter from the Birmingham News that during a recent trip to Florida he ran into seven of his workers who had left in fear of the law. Local officials say that the law is damaging their ability to get towns devastated by the natural disasters up and running again.
Alabama’s Gulf Coast tourism industry, already reeling from the BP oil spill last year, has lost large portions of its workforce, as well. Sheila Hodges, the owner of two cleaning services on the Gulf, told the Birmingham News, about the problem: “At least 30 percent of her Starr Textile Services employees have left. More left…“scared” of enforcement of the new law, even though they carried documentation.” Other hospitality industry employers report similar losses of employees and wonder how jobs will be filled as the fall beach season begins.
The law is also playing itself out negatively on the Alabama economy in hundreds of more minute ways. For example, one county has stopped issuing food permits to restaurants because it does not understand how to implement the citizenship requirements that HB 56 places on corporations. This has forced small business owners to delay opening restaurants and bakeries, and left prospective workers unemployed.
Landlords have reported apartment rentals suddenly being vacated. In some buildings, as many as a quarter of renters have left. Some supermarkets and stores have seen a falloff in sales at a time when retail in the state is already struggling.
Supporters of the law have offered nothing in the way of planning to ameliorate the economic harms it has caused. They offer assurances that “things will work out” and talk about vague plans to pass new immigration legislation in the United States Congress, but apart from a wish and a prayer they seem impotent to correct the damage they have done.
Next week I’ll look at the developing humanitarian crisis in Alabama.